End of an era: An era in character acting has ended with Amrish Puri. Subhash K Jha reports


“What a gentleman... and such a nice man to know,” says writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar, summing up the dismay in the film industry over the death Wednesday of Amrish Puri, one of Bollywood’s most revered and in-demand character actors. Javed has been inundated with requests from television channels for sound bytes on ‘bad-man’ Puri. “After the third or fourth homage you begin to feel you’re faking the words. That shouldn’t be, specially when it comes to someone as honourable as Amrishji. He was not just a brilliant actor, but also a wonderful person.”

Kamal Haasan smiles at the memory of his friend. “Puri Saab was my leading man in ‘Chachi 420’. I masqueraded as a woman and he was the man who had the hots for me. Puri Saab was as usual, flawless. Since ‘Chachi 420’, we kept in touch constantly. A true gentleman-actor.” Amrish’s elder brothers Chaman and Madan Puri were actors long before him. At age 40, a career as an actor came belatedly to Puri. His first screen appearance was in Sunil Dutt’s “Reshma Aur Shera” in 1971 where he made his debut alongside Amitabh Bachchan.

Coincidentally, they are regarded as two of the best voices ever heard in Hindi cinema. And it couldn’t be mere chance that a fortnight before his death, Puri’s baritone provided the voiceover in “Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyon” which starred Amitabh Bachchan. Puri first made audiences and critics sit up in Shyam Benegal’s “Nishant” in 1975 where he played an immoral zamindar. Success in avant-garde cinema was instant, though the same cannot be said about the mainstream.

“Those weren’t easy years for me,” the actor with the booming baritone said to me once. “Recognition was hard to come by, and I had a family to support. I took on any and every villain’s role that came my way.”

After struggling through years of small and not-so-small diabolic roles, the actor became a household name with “Mr India” where he played the infamous cartoon-like villain Mogambo in 1987. Not since Gabbar Singh in “Sholay” had villainy in Hindi screen acquired such a swaggering, contemporary and quirky aura. After playing the villain in innumerable films, Puri’s career was injected with new life when he did Kuku Kohli’s “Phool Aur Kaante” and Priyadarshan’s “Muskurahat” in 1992. The two films cast Puri in non-villainous pivotal roles that catapulted him to the top as Bollywood’s most in-demand character-actor.

Whether as the homesick NRI in Aditya Chopra’s “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge”, the benevolent feudal landlord in Priyadarshan’s “Viraasat”, Sunny Deol’s terminally ill, idealistic father in Raj Kumar Santoshi’s “Ghaatak” or Amisha Patel’s anti-India father in Anil Sharma’s “Gadar: Ek Prem Katha”, Puri created a gallery of characters that count among the most memorable in the history of mainstream Hindi cinema.

He was rightly very proud and possessive of his celebrated voice. I remember after an interview he requested me to erase his voice from the tape. “I don’t want people to get their hands on my voice. Who knows how it may be used?” he had wondered.

The voice is gone. And so is the man who made three words emblematic of evil joy. “Mogambo khush hua!”

An era in character acting has ended with Amrish Puri.